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Unorthodox – a coming of age story about survival and faith

Lynn Rusk April 8, 2020

Unorthodox is Netflix’s first ever series filmed in Yiddish and follows the life of Esty, a 19-year-old girl who flees her strict Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn in search of a secular life in another country.

The four-part series is based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots. Raised in the Hasidic Satmar sect of Williamsburg, Feldman escaped an arranged marriage at the age of 19 while pregnant with her first child and resettled in Berlin. Esty’s character is loosely based around Feldman, although elements of her story have been rewritten.

Unorthodox is both a story of survival and coming of age. Esty, played by the remarkable Shira Haas, has always been different. She says so herself when she first meets Yanky (Amit Rahav), the husband she has been promised to. In a world where a woman’s only purpose is to bear children and cater to her husband’s needs, Esty dreams of music and travelling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zVhRId0BTw

Told through a series of flashbacks, the story moves between two timelines – one in New York, the other in Berlin. The first chronicles Esty’s life in Brooklyn, growing up in her strict Jewish community with an absent mother (Alex Reid) and an alcoholic father. At 18 she enters into an unhappy arranged marriage and discovers physical intimacy is more difficult than she hoped. After failing for a year to bear her husband, Yanky, a child, he asks for a divorce.

The second timeline tracks her journey to Berlin, where her estranged mother lives. Although she doesn’t initially reach out to her, Esty falls in with a young crowd of musicians at the Berlin Music Conservatory and attempts to navigate her way through this new secular life while securing a prestigious audition and a handsome new love interest.

Unorthodox cr: Netflix

What makes this series so gripping is it’s an invitation to become a bystander in a world so different to the majority of its audience.

The Satmar Jews are a Hasidic group that originated in Hungary. Following the Second World War, it re-established itself in New York becoming one of the largest Hasidic movements in the world.

Director Maria Schrader and creator Anna Winger (“Deutschland 83”) must be commended for carefully curating this micro world and ensuring the series is an accurate reflection of the Satmar culture. 

Unorthodox is an eye-opening, compelling series that allows us to learn about this little-known religion and culture. It also outlines the challenges of leaving such a strict community and the lasting effects it has on survivors.

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A freelance journalist with experience in television and print. I enjoy writing about dance, theatre, lifestyle and culture.